Here’s another lively destination in eastern Europe for those who have already been to Prague, Budapest and Kraków: Bratislava.The capital of Slovakia combines the youthful scene of Prague with the artistry of nearby Vienna. Great restaurants, terrific museums and galleries, bohemian music and entertainment and a fascinating historical and cultural atmosphere mingle in this inexpensive and friendly city.Thanks to its strategic location on the Danube and its proximity (less than 50 miles) to Vienna, Bratislava has long enjoyed a strong economy, hosted wealthy residents and visitors and been a cultural melting pot in Europe. Today, the diverse history translates into a vibrant city offering visitors countless options and the desire to see it again.Any visit should include a walk up the hill to explore Bratislava Castle, for centuries the symbol of the city. Owning the high ground has always been important, and this particular spot has been home to Celts, Romans, Slavs and Magyars.Today’s castle dates to the 15th century, with the most recent expansion in the early 1800s. Be sure to visit the Treasure House and History Museum, both inside. During summer months, theatrical performances, concerts and artisan craft fairs occupy the castle grounds.Walk down the castle hill and visit St. Martin’s Cathedral. The enormous Gothic church enjoys a great view of the Danube and was the site for the coronation of every Hungarian king from 1563 until 1830.After those bits of sightseeing, it will be time to sit down for a typical Slovakian meal. Wander over to Obchodna Street, an area of cafes, bars and restaurants, and find the Slovak Pub. Always a favorite spot for locals, the pub has an appealing, authentic atmosphere and an impressive menu of Slovak beers. Food here is fresh, tasty and inexpensive.After lunch, walk through Michael’s Gate, the only remaining of the four original entryways into the city. Built in the 14th century, the 165-foot watchtower now stands over the shops and eateries on Michalska Street, one of the busiest marketplaces in Bratislava.While walking around the old town, enjoy a taste of Slovak wine at Vinoteka Urbana on Klobucnicka Street, right next to the main tourist information office. Or, if you prefer beer, drop in at Bratislavsky Mestiansky Pivovar, a brewery on Drevena Street that claims to serve the “best beer in Slovakia.”When it’s time to slow down a bit, check out the Slovak National Gallery. The largest and most important art gallery in the country, it is made up of a complex of buildings along the Danube and features some of the finest examples of Slovak and European art. If American art is more to your liking, walk into the sunny, romantic restaurant called Flowers (on Venturska Street in the center of the old town), which displays a series of original paintings by Andy Warhol.When night falls and it’s time to hit one of Bratislava’s clubs, try Hysteria Pub. The converted hockey stadium near one of the city’s largest universities attracts an energetic and young group. If a big crowd is not appealing, on Saturdays high over Bratislava’s enigmatic New Bridge, the UFO Groove Club opens its doors to only 150 guests. They enjoy great food, fabulous cocktails, hot dance music and, since the club is housed in a restaurant atop one of the bridge’s pylons some 280 feet above the Danube, great views of the city. The UFO also has an upscale restaurant and a sightseeing deck that are open daily.After dancing late into the night, it’s time to head back to the hotel. The best deal in Bratislava is, without question, the Hotel Kyjev. Cheap, clean, comfortable and located in the center of the city, the budget hotel was built as a multistory block in the communist-era style, but now has a retro look popular with guests. The hotel also offers transfers to and from the airport.Depending on the time of year, Bratislava offers ample excuse to return. There is a contemporary dance festival in May, outdoor classical music concerts and Shakespeare performances from June to September, the Bratislava Music Festival featuring classical music in the fall, a two-week jazz festival in October, an annual monthlong photography exhibit in November, a documentary film festival, also in November, and the annual Christmas market in December. This April, Bratislava will host the World Hockey Championships. Check the tourist information office website for details.
Jim Sajo is a freelance writer who lives in northern Italy. Visit him on Facebook at Jim Sajo the Writer.
Know & Go• Rooms at Hotel Kyjev begin at 30 euros, but for specific rates you must contact the hotel. Its website is www.hotelkyjev.com.• If luxury is more important than budget, try Hotel Radisson Carlton, between the Bratislava Opera House and the U.S. Embassy, where standard guest rooms start at 115 euros.• Websites for the city’s tourist offices are www.bratislava.sk/en or, for cultural events, www.bkis.sk/en.• Things to see and do outside of Bratislava: Meulensteen Art Museum (www.danubiana.sk); the Slovak National Collection of Wine (www.nsvsr.sk); cruise the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava (www.twincityliner.com); walk, skate, hike or bike through forest lands in the nearby Carpathian Mountains.